Week Nineteen: French Breads
Here’s a quiz: can you guess where the name for this bread came from? That’s right; it’s from a Czech word meaning “little half”! Five points.
Actually, I’m serious. Obviously, pain polka (or, polka bread) is so called because of the distinctive pattern on top, which resembles polka dots. And polka dots, though ancient, came by their current name from a dance (the, um, polka) that happened to be in vogue at the same time as said pattern. And the dance got its name from the short (little) half steps taken by the dancers. So there you have it; from půlka to polka, from a Czech dance to delicious bread from Central France.
Interestingly, there’s no real recipe as such for polka bread. Unlike other breads, such as rye or a croissant, this bread is defined as “pain polka” mainly because of the shape, rather than the ingredients. Generally, though, it’s made with a crusty white bread, common in Central France. The dough is enhanced with the use of a starter, giving the finished bread a much better texture and flavor than it would otherwise have.
When slashing this bread, don’t be shy. The more cuts you make, the more the polka-dot appearance will show. Make the cuts too far apart (like I did), and your bread will just look nubbly on top. Don’t worry too much about deflating it, since the dough is given another 20 minutes of rising to recover a bit. But no matter what, you’ll end up with a lovely centerpiece bread, crusty, airy, and flavorful. Ten points.
Makes 1 large round
For the starter:
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
5 ounces (about 1 cup) unbleached bread flour
1 cup water, room temperature
For the dough:
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
20 ounces (about 4 1/2 cups) unbleached bread flour, divided, plus additional for dusting
1 1/3 cups water, room temperature
1 tablespoon salt
1. To make the starter, whisk the yeast into the flour. Add the water and whisk until smooth. Cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit at room temperature for about 4 to 5 hours.
2. To make the final dough, set aside 3 to 4 ounces (a scant cup) of the flour. In the bowl of a stand mixer, whisk the yeast and remaining flour together. Add the water, and mix with the dough hook until all the flour is moistened, and a stiff dough forms. Without removing the dough hook, cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap, and let sit for 15 minutes.
3. Remove the plastic wrap, add the salt and all the starter, and knead on low speed until combined. Increase the speed to medium-low and knead for another 5 to 6 minutes, adding only enough of the remaining flour as needed to achieve the right consistency. The dough should form a cohesive ball, but still be a little slack, and not firm. Transfer the dough to a large lightly-oiled bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and let sit until doubled in size, about 1 1/2 hours.
4. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, and lightly flour. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Punch down (deflate), and shape into a round loaf. Transfer the dough seam-side down to the prepared baking sheet. Loosely cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap, and let stand in a warm place until not quite doubled in size, about 1 hour. About halfway through rising, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.
5. Dust the top of the dough liberally with flour. Using a sharp serrated knife, make a series of quick slashes in the top of the dough, in a grid pattern. Cut fairly deeply, but be quick; don’t press the knife into the dough, deflating it. Cover loosely again, and let rest for 20 minutes.
6. Spray or sprinkle the loaf with water. Place in the oven, and bake for 10 minutes, opening the door and spraying with water every 2 or 3 minutes. Bake an additional 15 minutes, or until the loaf is a dark golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack to cool thoroughly before slicing.
1. If you don’t have time to wait for the starter, you can omit it; but the flavor is vastly improved with it. In this case, double the yeast in the dough to 1 teaspoon, and increase the water to 1 1/2 cups. Proceed as directed.
2. On the other hand, if you can handle waiting a bit longer for the starter, or if it fits into your schedule, decrease the amount of yeast in the starter to 1/4 teaspoon. Mix the starter as directed, but let it sit for at least 10 hours or so. Proceed as directed.